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A visit to remember

I am still processing what happened on Friday.

Our school is about five blocks away from the city border.  Friday, a group of 12 students from one of the nearby urban high schools, came by for what turned out to be a nearly whole-day visit.

The students were working with their alumni association and their enthusiastic new librarian to build a library at their own school.  My job was to give the group a tour and to make suggestions for their new space and their new program.

I was impressed with these young men and young women. 

Nearly all of them are planning on college.  And they are serious about building a library.  Because they are juniors and seniors, the library they build will be a legacy.

As our time together passed, I watched their faces.  They listened and responded politely. 

It was apparent that something else was happening.  Something not part of our planned program.  This was no longer an information-gathering visit.  This was a clear vision of inequity.  And this was a mission that would promote activism.

I showed them some of the products our students created as the result of their research–the blogs and wikis; the digital stories created with traditional movie-making tools and VoiceThread and Animoto; the class Nings.

I told them all these tools are available and they are free.  They looked at me stunned.  And they took notes.

I asked them how they communicated the results of their research.  Universally they responded: term papers.  Despite the fact that these kids were so excited by the student-produced media we toured, no other channel had been suggested for their work.

We showed them the things we loan: among them Flip cameras and flash drives and headsets.  They were impressed.

We talked about research strategies. 

These students had never seen a pathfinder that might guide them through their research.  What floored me most was that they’d never heard of databases.  They went nuts over some of the ones we subscribe to, the ones our own students take for granted. They especially loved Gale’s Opposing Viewpoints

Here’s the real shame.  They knew NOTHING about our State Library-funded Access PA POWER Library

Most of the students had computer access at home, but no school library page led them to this free resource.  No teacher suggested it.  This access becomes even more critical in a city with a limited number of professional school librarians, in a city with local public library branches closing.

On the bright side, I could fix this for twelve students. Several of the visiting students had public library cards.  I asked for a volunteer to demonstrate how to get into the databases with the barcode on the back of their cards. 

They recognized the size of our state’s database offerings. 

We toured only two of those databases and I watched as jaws dropped.   

They explored EBSCO’s Student Research Center, with its available fulltext access to magazines, newspapers, books, transcripts, primary sources, video, and more.  You mean we had this stuff available to us all along?

They explored NetLibrary, with its tens of thousands of fulltext ebooks.  They couldn’t believe that the books they really needed for their projects would be available online for free.  I’m going to read a book online tonight.

My principal, who was with us for most of the visit, kept shaking his head. 

He’d worked in that very school.  He debriefed with the students before they got back on the bus.  He discussed the digital divide with them.  He discussed what they might possibly do with their new knowledge and their growing anger.

I still don’t know exactly how to process this experience.  I’ve been teary about it all weekend.  It is different seeing the differences from the eyes of young people.

But I know that these 12 students know what they deserve. I know they have adults behind them who get it.  I know that new librarian plans to correct inequities. We’re all ready planning more time together to plan.

But I know I need to do more.  So many of the tools these students need to engage with, so many of the tools these students need to succeed academically are freely available to them.

Why are we leaving so many children behind?

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Joyce,
    Thank you for sharing. It is a timely reminder that not all schools/libraries are created equal. I find it hard to believe that there are high schools out there that don’t have a basic library. Sometimes we need to be reminded there are still things worth fighting for.

  2. Doug Johnson says:

    Thanks, Joyce, for this moving entry. It’s a great reminder that the true digital divide is less about stuff and more about skills, leadership and vision.

    I’ll be thinking about this post myself for some time.


  3. Gordon Dahlby says:

    A well written reminder that we are not “there” yet, Joyce.

  4. Hi Joyce.
    Thanks for sharing this with us. I have been thinking about it since I read it last night. I agree with Doug that even when the technology is in place, in many cases the Digital Divide remains. And for those of us who know the power of inquiry and tools for personal and collective knowledge creation, confrontation with the fact that all students don’t have access or knowledge of those tools can be heartbreaking.
    So many things can go wrong in the system – physical access, intellectual access, institutional support. This is a justice issue that we should be concerned about. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. We need to be reminded.

  5. As others have stated, this story is very moving. Over the past few years, I have watched our own high school library specialist improve our facility for our students. The power of access is simple, yet so many are not trained that we don’t know how to properly enforce the systems at hand. I am going to take this back to school and lesson plan with our library specialist. Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Mary Johnson says:

    Your thought-provoking post personalizes every article I’ve ever read about the digital divide. By showing the visiting students the disparity between what they have and what they could have, you planted the seed to empower them. “Yes we can” comes to mind. I’d like to encourage you to send this post to your local newspaper. It is just outstanding. -Mary

  7. Amy Oberts says:

    Hi, Joyce. Just a few follow-up questions…who is responsible for “advertising” the Access PA Power Library and its holdings? Is there a network for communication established between librarians “in the know,” as well as librarians who are new and/or veterans? I guess I am trying to understand WHY such great resources never made it into the students’ hands. I don’t want to assume the prior librarian WITHHELD these resources. I am just baffled…how could these resources be overlooked?

  8. joycevalenza says:

    Amy, I am baffled too. I know that there are many schools in our fair city without libraries. I know that there are many administrators who have little or no expectations of a library program.

  9. Laura Gardner says:

    I appreciate you bringing educational inequity in terms of school libraries to light. I worked in a school library in rural Mississippi for three years (after originally being placed there with Teach For America). Before I worked in the library, students and teachers had no idea that there were databases available through the state (MAGNOLIA is the Mississippi program). Libraries and schools are certainly not created equal and we have a long way to go to change that.

  10. Nancy White says:

    Joyce, this is such a moving story, thank you. This should serve as a call to action for all of us – in whatever way we can make an impact. Just communicating outside of library circles would be a great start! I find teacher-librarians sitting in 2 different camps regarding the lack of librarians in schools. Either they think the administrators should learn a lesson for not seeing the light and investing in a library and/or librarian and so offer no help, support, or training to those that are left with the task of teaching information literacy and 21st century skills to students, or else they realize that the kids shouldn’t suffer for the lack of a library/librarian – and provide at least some support – even if it is just communication – – to make sure someone helps those kids to provide the critical skills and resources they need! The second issue I see is that of inequity. It has become very clear to me recently that lack of a school library and/or teacher-librarian is a matter in inequity. The children in that school do not get anywhere near the same level of education and learning opportunities that students get who do have them. I had the opportunity recently to suggest this to someone in our state department of education and remember the surprised look I received – but then, thoughtful, and perhaps a glimmer of understanding. It will take at least another 1000 times, I think, and 1000 voices, for that message to get through, but I think it is an important one. Inequity in education definitely gets administrators attention, and students in schools without a teacher-librarian, and worse yet, without a library do not have access to the resources they need, or have someone dedicated to teaching them the critical skills they need to be successful in the 21st century. Now that would make a great research study!

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